Although it was undoubtedly a brutal and angry conflict, I have always felt able to see the Spanish Civil War, because of the many memorable artistic responses to it, as a fascinating and heroic historical event.
Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker, the poetry of W.H. Auden, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic, Republican songs like “Bandiera Rossa”. As Eric Hobsbawn said, the Spanish Civil War is one of the few occasions when history has not been written by the victors.
I can’t recall exactly why it was such a topic of such attention in the early 1980s. Possibly because of the fierce arguments and tensions within left-wing politics at that time, possibly because of the imminent arrival of that politically and culturally iconic year 1984.
I especially remember a brilliant Edinburgh Fringe show in 1982 by Cambridge REDS called And I Remember Spain, a dramatised compilation of various writings and music from the Civil War. I long ago discarded any programme and the internet frustratingly yields no information, but the text may have been based on a 1974 anthology of the same title by one Murray Sperber.
In 1984 itself, I saw some of a Channel 4 documentary series called The Spanish Civil War. The sort of serious programme which we took for granted in the early days of Channel 4, when the channel had the benefit of the regional ITV companies as well as the new independent producers.
Rediscovering it on You Tube, I saw for the first time that the script had been written by the great Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson, of whose Observer writings, especially on Eastern Europe, I was an avid reader at that time.
Directed by David Hart for Granada TV, it has a visual style which harks back to earlier famous series like The Great War and the The World at War. A dense text full of detailed references to the revolution, to the various disparate factions within the two forces and to their forgotten leaders. A grave disembodied commentary voice – in this case belonging to Frank Finlay. Evocative film footage, movie as well as still. And, especially, eye-witness accounts which really do come from a totally different time and place, spoken by people who look far younger than the 70 or 80 years old that in most cases they must have been.
In documentaries now we seem so dependent on a template of camera close-ups, intrusive music, pregnant pauses and tearful testimony. Here, in contrast, male and female witnesses are permitted to speak in a dispassionate straightforward way about the violence, treachery, suffering and sacrifice, giving an honest record of memories and feelings, either not receiving or ignoring any prompts from the unseen interviewer. Editing and music is applied in a restrained fashion. Only one (male) witness is seen in tears, and the commentary draws attention to this as unusual and unavoidable: a man who remembers his socialist father killed after the Civil War by local Nationalists and how he had to continue living normally near the people whom he knew were responsible.
A few contributors are English-speaking, notably the Scots journalist Willie Forrest. His obituary here adds further information about what an amazing person he must have been.